3 and a Half Tales of Defeat

December 6, 2007 § Leave a comment

This is the 5 of Swords from the Haindl:

Haindl 5 of Swords

On the US Games version, the keyword for this card is ‘Defeat’. On my new German version, the keyword is ‘Sinnloser Streit’ which, if Google Translate is to be trusted, means ‘Senseless Dispute’. The painting used in the card shows a dying unicorn with five broken swords falling about its head. The card features Hexagram 47 of the I Ching; it describes a situation in which you are powerless and – as Sarah Dening writes in The Everyday I Ching – “life appears to be conspiring against you.” The advice given is both frustrating and hopeful: “There is nothing you can do at this point to change things for the better. The situation will improve in due course.”

In the last week, I’ve read three separate stories which all seemed to have something to say on the theme of defeat and which have taught me to look at this card in a new way.

The bible story of the trials of Job (which I read this weekend in the excellent The Mythic Journey by Liz Green and Juliet Sharman-Burke) relates very closely to the message of the card. Job was a very prosperous man, “the greatest of all the men of the East”. But then – for no understandable reason – his animals are stolen or killed, his servants and his ten children are killed, his home is destroyed, and he is afflicted with terrible disease. Despite all this, he refuses to curse God for his misfortune. When his wife confronts him about this, he simply replies: “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not suffering as well?” Job’s friends are convinced he must have unwittingly committed some terrible sin to have such punishment inflicted upon him but in truth (despite being filthy rich) Job was a really good person.

The commentary following this story explains: “Outside the world of Walt Disney, the evil often go unpunished, and the good are unfairly struck down. Young, talented, fine people die of horrible diseases, yet ruthless dictators, responsible for thousands of murders, live to ripe old ages and die comfortably in their beds.” It goes on to say: “…sooner or later life’s unfairness will touch us, and we will feel pain which is unmerited, and suffer losses which we have done nothing to deserve. ”

Back to The Everyday I Ching and Hexagram 47: “Do not allow yourself to be dragged down by circumstances or wallow in self-pity. Life is not always fair. Yet the show must go on…..Fight your negative thoughts and feelings tooth and nail. Anybody can be optimistic when things are going well. (Sounds a bit like what Job said to his wife.) It takes considerably more effort to stay positive in difficult times like these. But if you succeed, you will gain immensely in terms of your inner strength and self-confidence.”

Eventually, things did improve for Job and he lived a long and (mostly) happy life. But what if there is no happy ending?

In the African-American folktale ‘Ole Sis Goose’ (from Outfoxing Fear by Kathleen Ragan), the defeat is absolute. Ole Sis Goose is swimming on a lake when she is pounced on by Br’er Fox, who was hiding in the weeds. Br’er Fox threatens to break her neck and pick the flesh from her bones but Ole Sis Goose defends her right to swim in the lake and insists that they go to the courthouse to sort it out:

“And so dey went to cote, and when dey got dere, de sheriff, he wus er fox, en de judge, he wus er fox, and der tourneys, dey wus foxes, en all de jurrymen, dey was foxes, too. En dey tried ole Sis Goose, en dey ‘victed her and dey ‘scuted her, and dey picked her bones.”

This tale makes an important point about the defeat shown in the 5 of Swords: It often stems from an inbalance of power, and the ones with the power are not necessarily the ones in the right. The tale concludes:

“Now, my chilluns, listen to me, when all de folks in de cotehouse is foxes, and you is des’ er common goose, der ain’t gwine to be much jestice for you.”

In the RWS 5 of Swords, a smirking man is shown holding all the swords while two others walk away, defeated. In this situation, it doesn’t matter who’s wrong or who’s right, or what’s fair. The only thing that matters is who has the power.

The tale of Ole Sis Goose is understandably bleak. But does the fact that the courthouse was full of foxes mean that Ole Sis Goose should have shut up and let those foxes push her around? Just because your words fall on deaf ears, does that mean you shouldn’t speak them? As Firefly‘s Captain Mal Reynolds said: “May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”

The very next tale in Outfoxing Fear is from Afghanistan, entitled ‘The Tale of Emir’s Sword’. In this story, a man is sentenced to death for stealing a sword. Though he is due to be executed in only a few hours, he refuses to send for help from his tribe when one of the tribal leaders passes by where he is tied to the gun that will execute him. Rather than tell the truth, Amin Khan tells the tribal leader: “I am committing an impropriety with this unspeakable gun, which has blasted the lives of many Afghans. I am busy. Go your way. I will follow you soon.”

Later, after Amin Khan has been saved from certain death in the nick of time, another tribal leader calls him foolish for not sending word that his life was in danger, and asks why he told the other leader such nonsense. Amin replied: “Khan, have you forgotten the old Pushtu verse which runs,

Let me be buried in an unknown grave
But never let men think I was not brave…?

I did not wish Agha Jan, whose family has a longstanding fued with mine, to be able to boast that he had saved my life. I preferred, O my Father, death to such a fate as that.”

Unlike Ole Sis Goose, Amin Khan knew what fate awaited him. Yet he chose to accept his death in the face of what – for him – would be a greater defeat. There are some things that are worse than death.

In the film Braveheart, William Wallace was eventually defeated and executed. But even in death he refused to lose faith – his cries of ‘Freedom!’ were heard by all. He knew that his death was not the end and though he may have lost that one battle, his followers had not lost the war. 

Sinnloser Streit – Senseless Dispute. Some battles are not worth fighting and some cannot be won. But if you hold fast to your principles – even through times of defeat – your time of victory will come. In the Haindl 5 of Swords, the dying unicorn has its eyes open. It sees the broken swords; it knows its fate. But, in fact, it is looking beyond the swords, beyond this defeat, to a time when ‘right’ will gain victory over ‘might’.

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